Bad Mother: A Story in Five Paragraphs

Once there was a woman with four children under the age of ten: two boys, two girls; two blond, two dark; two boisterous, two subdued. When the eldest complained that she loved him the least, she said, “No, no. That’s not true, and besides, I loved you first,” which satisfied him for a while. Sometimes she could hear him not quite repeating her words, gloating to himself or to his siblings, “Momma loves me first.” When her younger sister asked her which child she loved best, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous! I love them all the same, just as our mother loved us the same,” even though she knew that their mother had not loved them the same. On her deathbed, their mother had pulled her close, hand on her shirtfront surprisingly strong. “I always loved you best. Remember that,” she whispered like a threat. On sunny days when one child suddenly broke the family’s harmony, she told herself, “I don’t love one more than another. I just love them differently.” But this was a lie. All of it was a lie. She did love one best, and not the baby as you might expect, but the second eldest, a boy whose greatest pleasure, it seemed, was to slip his hand into hers then quickly out again, and leave something behind in her palm. She loved him better than all the others.

She loved him better than her oldest son. Her best friend, who had only one child, said, “I didn’t have another because I could never love anyone as much as I love him.” She, on the other hand, had had a second child specifically because she loved the first so much. She’d wanted to experience that love again, to feel it multiplied. Then, what a surprise to experience a love even wilder, fiercer, stronger, deeper. Her first child was quietly willful, and brilliant, and totally focused on the task at hand. Told to clean up his room, he put the toys away but then also got out the dust rags, the vacuum, and the Windex. He excelled on tests of all sorts, both physical and intellectual, but his mother had to admit that while she found his persistence admirable, she found his fastidiousness trying and his need for approval exhausting. Whenever he brought home a report card, he sat on the front stoop until she returned from work and wouldn’t let her go inside, despite the December snow or June heat, until she had noted every grade and every glowing comment. Neighbors remarked on how proud she must be, but privately she preferred the second child, whose grades varied—high in the subjects he loved (which changed every year), low in those he had no patience for, whose room always looked like a ransacked casino, and whose favorite phrase, gleaned from a self-help book he’d found on his aunt’s bedside table (happy to read that as anything else) was “Sometimes good is good enough.” His memory was terrible and his ability to reason logically was limited, but the minute he touched something he thought of a question to ask about it.

She loved this second child better than she loved her third one too, the one she’d had in an attempt to diffuse the either/or relationship she had with the first two. For a while it worked. It helped that the third was a girl, and that the woman could go out and buy new clothes for her (girl clothes) rather than relying on hand-me-downs, shallow though this might be. This baby destroyed pink though, and knew how to throw herself into a rage for apparently no reason at all. Once she grew teeth, she ate everything: corn cobs as well as kernels, chicken bones, her blanket, pages torn from books—like a beautiful goat. For she was such a beautiful child that strangers stared in the grocery store and told her to sign the baby up for a modeling contract, so beautiful that she, herself, couldn’t stop looking at the little girl’s perfect oval face, her eyes such a light blue they seemed to reflect the sky, her golden curls. The second child had golden curls too, but while the baby’s were lovely ringlets, his were disorderly and knotted, frizzy on one side of his head, loosely loopy on the other. And his nose was bulbous, his lips too thin, his large ears stuck out, his neck too long—the kind of child who prompted relatives to remark that true beauty is on the inside. His mother loved his puppy ungainlyness but also hoped, for his sake, that he was merely an ugly duckling, destined to grow into a swan.

She loved her second child better than she loved her fourth too, the second girl, called Baby, always the baby, who told funny knock-knock jokes, and was so ticklish that she giggled even before your fingers found the sweet spot on the side of her waist, and laughed at everything, even her siblings’ falls and failures—not because she was malicious but because she really and truly saw the humor in everything. She assumed that when they tripped, they did so just to amuse her, and that when they quarreled, it was for her amusement too, like the Punch and Judy show she had seen once on TV. The second child didn’t laugh at the comics, could never remember his own punch lines, and looked blank when other people told jokes. “I don’t get it,” he said until even his kind youngest sister rolled her eyes. “Perhaps his seriousness will lead him to do great things,” his mother thought.

She’d planned her children two years apart, and had imagined them as stair-steps, littlest to biggest, youngest to oldest, separate but equal. She had pictured their photos marching tidily up the wall alongside the real steps in her house. In the heart, though, nothing is separate but equal. In fact, she stumbled up, stumbled down, stumbled among her children. Sometimes she wondered if her great love for her second child grew out of pity, or guilt, or the fact that she most closely recognized herself in him. Of course, she hoped that his lack of ambition, timidity, and imperfect sense of humor wouldn’t make it difficult for him to find his way in the world! Of course, she worried that she was treating her other children unfairly and hoped she hid this as well as her mother had hidden her own unfair feelings. Of course, she worried that she identified with him too much. She too had been dull-witted, unattractive, and clumsy compared to her siblings. All this. But mostly she loved him because he demanded nothing, and her love grew every time his hand slipped into hers, even once he’d become a teenager, and from the berry he left behind, the bluebird feather, the striped pebble, the coin, the glove she’d dropped two blocks back, a meticulously drawn space ship on a scrap of old envelope. These things made her long to pet him, his unruly hair, his dirty shirts, his puzzled expression.

Maya Sonenberg’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Web Conjunctions, Hotel Amerika, and South Loop Review. New fiction should appear soon in Diagram and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Chiasmus Press published her second collection, Voices from the Blue Hotel, in 2007.